Why COVID-19 might not change our cities as much as we expect



Brian S/Shutterstock

Christian A. Nygaard, Swinburne University of Technology; Iris Levin, Swinburne University of Technology, and Sharon Parkinson, Swinburne University of Technology

What will be the normal way of urban living when the COVID-19 crisis passes? What aspects will remain with us and what will disappear?

The coronavirus pandemic has thrust us into a moment of rapid change. Like all change, it is difficult to predict. But lessons from history provide us with two important insights.




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Cities will endure, but urban design must adapt to coronavirus risks and fears


First, temporary change sometimes has remarkably little lasting effect.

Second, what looks like a lasting effect is often the acceleration of existing trends, rather than new, crisis-caused trends.

COVID-19 impacts provide an opportunity for our cities to shift to new ways of urban living. But only if we couple this opportunity with technology and deliberate collective action will sustained and equitable change happen.

What does history tell us?

Right now, COVID-19 impacts are front of mind. In thinking ahead, we might therefore overemphasise what a crisis will do to how we live in cities. To put it simply, history shows us that the ways we organise our cities are often resistant to abrupt change – even in response to catastrophic events.

In Japan, changes to population distribution as a result of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 had disappeared by the early 1960s.

Almost 40% of Europe’s population died during the Black Death (1347-1352). Much of Europe’s urban hierarchy nevertheless returned to its pre-plague distribution over time.

Even the collapse of the urbanised Roman civilisation had little lasting effect on the urban hierarchy in France. It did lead, though, to a resetting of the urban network in England.

The reason for this urban inertia is that momentary change often does little to change the fundamentals of our cities. It doesn’t greatly change locational advantages, built environment legacy, property rights and land ownership.

London, for instance, has experienced slum clearance, Spanish flu, wartime bombing and the introduction of greenbelts and planning over the past 100 years. However, the location of the city’s rich and poor continues to be shaped by infrastructure investments in the Victorian era. And the Roman-period road layout has strongly influenced the street layout of central London today.

After all the upheavals London has endured through two millennia, the influence of the Roman road network can still be seen in the city today.
Fremantleboy, Drallim/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

At the same time, cities do of course change. In some cases dramatic events – like fires or earthquakes – are the enablers of change that is already underfoot. That is, business and policy coupling opportunity with technology and determination.




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How are business practices responding to COVID-19

Businesses will not – and should not – be slow to couple opportunity, technology and determination to achieve particular outcomes.

For instance, working from home has overnight (temporarily) become endemic. Higher education institutions (temporarily setting aside the challenges for teaching) switched remarkably quickly to almost exclusively online platforms.

COVID-safe shopping has popularised some automation. Demand for “contactless” service delivery has advanced some smart and robot technology into common use.

Some have argued that well before COVID-19 the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI) and online platforms had catapulted us into the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It’s a world of work and cities that are digitally smart, dispersed and connected.




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Working from home, online teaching and automation couple opportunity (as a result of COVID-19) and technology (digital communication) with longer-term trends.

Between 2001 and today, the office space per worker in many knowledge-intensive jobs shrank from 25 square metres to just 8sqm in new developments. Flexible working arrangements and casualisation across a range of sectors enable businesses to manage wage bills when wage rates cannot be reduced.

Automation also reduces business wage bills and has long been touted as a way to increase productivity. According to a 2019 McKinsey report, automation may affect 25-46% of current jobs.

The “death of the office” has long been predicted. Rumours of its death are likely exaggerated this time too.

Face-to-face interaction between workers often increases productivity in service and knowledge-based industries. Research shows face-to-face contact enhances co-operative and pro-social behaviour.




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Similarly, research suggests concentrating workers and their skills in one location (agglomeration economies) can increase much-needed labour productivity. This is required to offset the shifting labour-force balance in an ageing society.

What’s the role of public policy?

Our cities today work better for some than for others. Sustained and equitable change requires public sector action and will.

Temporary measures during the pandemic have brought home just how viable telecommuting is for some jobs and how achievable online teaching modes can be.

This will leave winners and losers. Unlike change itself, the winners and losers are often far more predictable. Women, renters, lower-income and migrant-dominated jobs are more vulnerable.




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What is imperative, therefore, is that governments similarly couple technology and opportunity with a vision for cities that are environmentally sustainable and socially just. This sort of urban future requires economic innovation. Change is confronting us with an opportunity and necessity to redress entrenched privilege.

History tells us critical events such as COVID-19 often do little to change the fundamentals of our cities. An important step in envisioning different urban futures is to recognise it is people, businesses, institutions and political will that collectively make change.The Conversation

Christian A. Nygaard, Associate Professor in Social Economics, Swinburne University of Technology; Iris Levin, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Urban Transitions, Swinburne University of Technology, and Sharon Parkinson, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Urban Transitions, Swinburne University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Cars rule as coronavirus shakes up travel trends in our cities



Taras Vyshnya/Shutterstock

Neil G Sipe, The University of Queensland

As with other parts of the global economy, COVID-19 has led to rapid changes in transport trends. The chart below shows overall trends for driving, walking and public transport for Australia as of July 17.

Australia-wide mobility trends for the six months from January to July 2020.
Apple Mobility Trends

Unfortunately, the current lockdown of metropolitan Melbourne, which is at odds with trends in Australia’s other biggest cities, is skewing the national average. These data, provided by Apple Mobility Trends, are available for many cities, regions and countries around the world.

Updated daily, the data provide a measure of trends in transport use since early January 2020. The chart below summarises the changes since then in driving, walking and public transport for Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth.


Data: Apple Mobility Trends

With the exception of Melbourne, driving has recovered and is now noticeably above pre-pandemic levels.




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Public transport use is still well below baseline levels. It is recovering – again except for Melbourne – but slowly. The exception is Adelaide where public transport is only slightly below the baseline.

Walking is doing better than public transport. Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth are slightly above the baseline, while Sydney is slightly below it. Melbourne is still down by about a half.

How badly did lockdowns affect travel?

The chart below shows the largest declines in driving, walking and public transport were recorded in the period April 4-11. Most of the lowest values coincided with Easter holidays. However, regardless of the holiday, this was the period when levels of transport use were lowest.

The declines are fairly consistent across the cities. For driving, the declines were around 70%. For walking, the declines ranged from 65% to 80%. Public transport recorded declines of 80-89%.


Data: Apple Mobility Trends

The recovery in driving is due, in part, to it being seen as having a lower risk of COVID-19 infection. People see public transport as the least safe because of the difficulties of social distancing on potentially crowded commutes.

A study in early March by an MIT economist amplified these fears by associating public transport in New York City with higher rates of COVID-19 infection. Unfortunately, the research had some significant flaws. Health experts have since indicated there is little evidence public transport has been the source of any COIVD-19 infections.




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Neverthess, public transport agencies are in serious financial trouble. In the US, experts are warning that, without large federal subsidies, public transport services are facing drastic cuts, which will impact where people live and work. Such shifts pose a threat to the economic viability of cities.

What is known about other transport modes? While comprehensive datasets are not available, evidence is emerging of the impacts on ride, bike and scooter sharing.

Ride sharing

As with all other transport modes, the pandemic has had big impacts on ride sharing. However some ride-sharing companies, like Uber, have diversified in recent years into areas such as food and freight delivery. These have provided much-needed revenue during the ride-sharing downturn.

Market analysts are predicting ride sharing will recover and continue to grow. This is due to need for personal mobility combined with increasing urbanisation and falling car ownership.




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Bike sharing

Globally, transport officials are predicting a long-term surge in bicycle use. Cycling appears to be booming at the expense of public transport.

Beijing’s three largest bike share schemes reported a 150% increase in use in May. In New York City, volumes grew by 67%. Bike sales in the US almost doubled in March.

In response, many cities are providing more cycling infrastructure, with cities like Berlin and Bogota leading the way with “pop-up” bike lanes. New Zealand has become the first country to fund so-called “tactical urbanism”.




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Melbourne has announced 12km of pop-up bike lanes and is fast-tracking an extra 40km of bike lanes over the next two years. Sydney has added 10km of pop-up cycleways. Use of some Brisbane bikeways has nearly doubled, leading to criticism of delays in providing pop-up lanes.

London intends to rapidly expand both cycling and walking infrastructure in anticipation of a ten-fold increase in bicycle use and a five-fold increase in pedestrians. This complements a £250 million (A$448 million) UK government program to reallocate more space for cyclists.

Paris plans to add 50km of pop-up and permanent bikeways in coming months. It’s also offering a €500 (A$818) subsidy to buy an electric bike and €50 to repair an existing bike.

Milan will add 35km of bikeways as part of its Strade Aperte Plan. The Italian government is providing a 70% subsidy capped at €500 for people to buy a new bicycle.

We will have to wait to see whether all this interest translates into longer-term mode change.

E-scooters

E-scooter use has declined, as has the value of e-scooter companies. Lime, one of the larger companies, was valued at US$2.4 billion (A$3.4 billion) last year but is down to US$510 million. Nevertheless, investor interest continues. Uber, Alphabet, GV and Bain and others put $US170 into Lime in May.

In Europe, ride-sharing company Bolt plans to expand its e-scooter and e-bike services to 45 cities in Europe and Africa this year. Another positive sign for this mode is that the UK, where e-scooters have not been street legal, has begun trials of rental e-scooters.




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It is still too early to predict the long-term impacts of COVID-19 on transport. What the data show is that driving has recovered and is even exceeding pre-pandemic levels. Current trends suggest active mobility – cycling, scooters and walking – may gain mode share. Whether public transport can recover is questionable, unless a vaccine becomes available.The Conversation

Neil G Sipe, Honorary Professor of Planning, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How to avoid cars clogging our cities during coronavirus recovery



Iain Lawrie, Author provided

Iain Lawrie, University of Melbourne and John Stone, University of Melbourne

As we re-open our economy and workers gradually return to workplaces, overall travel will increase. However, the need to maintain social distancing means public transport can’t operate at usual capacity. And fears of crowded public transport will lead to commuters making a much higher proportion of trips in private vehicles – unless they are offered viable alternatives such as the ones we discuss here.

Impact of physical distancing on public transport capacity.
International Transport Forum, OECD

Our initial analysis (as yet unpublished) of Australia’s major cities suggests a shift to cars will produce severe traffic congestion if even a modest proportion of the workforce returns to their usual workplaces during the COVID-19 recovery. In this article, we suggest some public transport solutions to avoid congestion caused by a shift to car travel.




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Globally, this trajectory is already becoming apparent. As lockdowns are eased, car use is rising much more quickly than public transport use. The latest figures from cities as diverse as Berlin, Los Angeles, Chicago, Auckland and Sydney all show this.

What are the implications of this trend?

First, the shift to private vehicles will be a bigger problem in cities with centres traditionally served by public transport than dispersed, car-dominated regions. Modelling by Vanderbilt University in the US showed an 85% shift of mass transit riders to cars would increase daily commute times by over sixty minutes in New York, but merely four minutes in Los Angeles. This is because public transport serves a mere 5% of journeys to work in Los Angeles but 56% in New York.

In cities that rely heavily on public transport, or even those with car-dominated suburbs but transit-dominated centres such as Sydney and Melbourne, a shift to cars for CBD trips will very quickly overwhelm the capacity of the road network. Pre-pandemic, 71% of trips to the Sydney CBD and 63% to Melbourne’s CBD were on public transport. So, while travel volumes may remain well below pre-pandemic levels for some time, road traffic is recovering faster than other travel modes.

Sydney’s and Brisbane’s road traffic volumes have already returned largely to pre-pandemic levels even while most CBD offices remain empty. Melbourne isn’t far behind. Returning commuters are in for a shock.


Apple Mobility Trends

Apple Mobility Trends

Apple Mobility Trends



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What can we do about it?

Several commentators suggest now may be the time to apply congestion pricing – charging a fee to use roads in peak periods. However, when many people are making travel decisions based on the health risks, such policy may not produce the desired behaviour change.




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The alternative is to improve commuters’ public transport options, rather than trying to price congestion away. The aim should be to allow it to operate more effectively while still providing room for on-board social distancing.

This is no easy task, yet it may be politically and technically easier than rapidly bringing in a comprehensive road-pricing regime. Even with social distancing restrictions, public transport will use roads more efficiently than private cars.

This photo shows how much road space cars, buses and cyclists require to transport an equivalent number of people.
Cycling Promotion Fund/We Ride Australia

The return to work must be gradual and supported by considerable flexibility in working hours. This will help manage peak demands. But on its own it’s not enough if frequent public transport services continue to be offered only during a limited commuter peak.

More services, more often

So, public transport services need to run at high frequencies for many more hours in the day. Some analysts suggest services be run at peak frequencies for most of the day.

Many suburban bus services, particularly direct services along arterial roads, should run much more often than their existing peak offerings. Routes can be tweaked to remove unnecessary detours that lead to slow travel times.




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These frequent, direct services should be supported by rigorous cleaning, visual guidance to maintain separation on platforms and within vehicles, and tools to help identify crowded vehicles.

Most importantly, we need to rapidly create “pop-up” dedicated bus lanes right across metropolitan areas. These lanes allow buses to avoid being held up by increasing traffic volumes. Although bus lanes may reduce capacity for private vehicles, when buses run frequently they are a much more efficient use of scarce road space.

Faster travel times for public transport would, in turn, mean operators could deliver more frequent services with existing fleets and drivers. This would reduce the operational cost of allowing for social distancing.




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Frequent services on these pop-up corridors will provide a critical, time-competitive alternative to driving. Although not without its challenges, implementing a fast and frequent bus network is conceptually straightforward and the cost is modest compared to the congestion impacts it could offset.

This solution will require a nimble and co-operative approach from state and local transport authorities and private operators. Success will mean our transit-centred CBDs and district centres continue to function efficiently.

In the longer term, a fast and frequent metropolitan transit network will leave a lasting positive legacy, supporting carbon reduction and city-shaping investments such as Sydney’s Metro and Brisbane’s Cross River Rail. Failure will lead to crippling congestion that erodes the economic and social strength of our previously vibrant cities.The Conversation

Iain Lawrie, PhD Candidate, University of Melbourne and John Stone, Senior Lecturer in Transport Planning, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Smart cities can help us manage post-COVID life, but they’ll need trust as well as tech


Sameer Hasija, INSEAD

“This virus may become just another endemic virus in our communities and this virus may never go away.” WHO executive director Mike Ryan, May 13

Vaccine or not, we have to come to terms with the reality that COVID-19 requires us to rethink how we live. And that includes the idea of smart cities that use advanced technologies to serve citizens. This has become critical in a time of pandemic.




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Smart city solutions have already proved handy for curbing the contagion. Examples include:

The robot dog called SPOT is being trialled in Singapore to remind people to practise physical distancing.

But as we prepare to move beyond this crisis, cities need to design systems that are prepared to handle the next pandemic. Better still, they will reduce the chances of another one.

Issues of trust are central

In a world of egalitarian governments and ethical corporations, the solution to a coronavirus-like pandemic would be simple: a complete individual-level track and trace system. It would use geolocation data and CCTV image recognition, complemented by remote biometric sensors. While some such governments and corporations do exist, putting so much information in the hands of a few, without airtight privacy controls, could lay the foundations of an Orwellian world.




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Our research on smart city challenges suggests a robust solution should be a mix of protocols and norms covering technology, processes and people. To avoid the perils of individual-level monitoring systems, we need to focus on how to leverage technology to modify voluntary citizen behaviour.

This is not a trivial challenge. Desired behaviours that maximise societal benefit may not align with individual preferences in the short run. In part, this could be due to misplaced beliefs or misunderstanding of the long-term consequences.

As an example, despite the rapid spread of COVID-19 in the US, many states have had public protests against lockdowns. A serious proportion of polled Americans believe this pandemic is a hoax, or that its threat is being exaggerated for political reasons.

Design systems that build trust

The first step in modifying people’s behaviour to align with the greater good is to design a system that builds trust between the citizens and the city. Providing citizens with timely and credible information about important issues and busting falsehoods goes a long way in creating trust. It helps people to understand which behaviours are safe and acceptable, and why this is for the benefit of the society and their own long-term interest.

In Singapore, the government has very effectively used social media platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Telegram to regularly share COVID-19 information with citizens.

Densely populated cities in countries like India face extra challenges due to vast disparities in education and the many languages used. Smart city initiatives have emerged there to seamlessly provide citizens with information in their local language via a smartphone app. These include an AI-based myth-busting chatbot.




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Guard against misuse of data

Effective smart city solutions require citizens to volunteer data. For example, keeping citizens updated with real-time information about crowding in a public space depends on collecting individual location data in that space.

Australians’ concerns about the COViDSafe contact-tracing app illustrate the need for transparent safeguards when citizens are asked to share their data.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Individual-level data is also useful to co-ordinate responses during emergencies. Contact tracing, for instance, has emerged as an essential tool in slowing the contagion.

Technology-based smart city initiatives can enable the collection, analysis and reporting of such data. But misuse of data erodes trust, which dissuades citizens from voluntarily sharing their data.

City planners need to think about how they can balance the effectiveness of tech-based solutions with citizens’ privacy concerns. Independent third-party auditing of solutions can help ease these concerns. The MIT Technology Review’s audit report on contact-tracing apps is one example during this pandemic.




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It is also important to create robust data governance policies. These can help foster trust and encourage voluntary sharing of data by citizens.

Using several case studies, the consulting firm PwC has proposed a seven-layer framework for data governance. It describes balancing privacy concerns of citizens and efficacy of smart city initiatives as the “key to realising smart city potential”.

As we emerge from this pandemic, we will need to think carefully about the data governance policies we should implement. It’s important for city officials to learn from early adopters.

While these important issues coming out of smart city design involve our behaviour as citizens, modifying behaviour isn’t enough in itself. Civic leaders also need to rethink the design of our city systems to support citizens in areas like public transport, emergency response, recreational facilities and so on. Active collaboration between city planners, tech firms and citizens will be crucial in orchestrating our future cities and hence our lives.


The author acknowledges suggestions from Aarti Gumaledar, Director of Emergentech Advisors Ltd.The Conversation

Sameer Hasija, Associate Professor of Technology and Operations Management, INSEAD

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Coronavirus has changed our sense of place, so together we must re-imagine our cities


Tony Matthews, Griffith University

Is it time to re-imagine our fundamental relationship with cities?

People bring cities to life. They interact, work, socialise and travel. Without this, cities are just collections of buildings and infrastructure.

This relationship is now on hiatus all over the world. The COVID-19 pandemic left thousands of cities empty, eerie and listless.




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We connect to cities by developing a “sense of place”. The concept describes how we perceive and attach to places through use. Our connection with cities changes over time but is always grounded in sense of place.

COVID-19 is fundamentally disrupting sense of place. It is causing transformative change in cities all over the world. Daily parts of city life, like shared seating, busy trains and eating out, have suddenly become threatening.

Many urban dwellers are redefining their sense of place in response. We may not view our cities the same way after this pandemic. Our perceptions and priorities may change, perhaps permanently.

As we start planning for cities after this pandemic, we should recognise this task is as much philosophical as practical.




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Transforming the present

It is useful to consider what exactly the COVID-19 pandemic represents for cities and why it can change people’s sense of place so profoundly.

Mary Street, Brisbane, during the lockdown.
Kgbo/Wikemedia Commons, CC BY-SA

The pandemic impacts are so severe it can be classified as a “transformative stressor”. These rare events cause severe and intense social, environmental and economic impacts. They are felt at every level of society and throughout social institutions.

Profound shocks are felt all at once in economic activity, human health and social order. Impacts occur at all scales. Almost everybody endures multiple forms of disruption.

Transformative stressors can be unforgiving in exposing problems and weaknesses in systems. They can be catastrophic in cities because so many systems are integrated, creating multiple points of impact.

COVID-19 also fits the transformative stressor model because it might not be possible to fully manage it. Recovery planning needs to account for the possibility COVID-19 might never disappear. It could become an ongoing risk of city life.

What was a distant worry becomes an immediate threat when a transformative stressor hits a city. Things that were once reliable and comfortable no longer are. Our behaviour changes in response, causing us to reconsider our sense of place over time.

How does sense of place change when the familiar becomes sinister?
Tony Matthews, Author provided



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Co-creating the future

The transformative impacts of this pandemic are upending established norms. But policy innovation can flourish at times like this. Transformative stressors give policymakers unique opportunities to work outside their normal methods.

People have stoically endured lockdowns in many countries. Working from home with limited mobility will further prompt many to re-evaluate their sense of place. Many people will want a big say in the fundamental decisions to be made on the future of their cities after this.




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As they seek innovative ways to help cities recover, planners can learn important lessons by consulting urban residents. Online co-creation processes and workshops are excellent tools for gathering the people’s thoughts and aspirations at this unique time.

Participating in workshops can also help residents redefine their sense of place in cities disrupted by COVID-19. They can describe how the crisis changed their perceptions and use of space. This allows them to redefine their sense of place by considering the future with full acknowledgement of the past.

Residents are engaging more closely with their own neighbourhoods at the moment. This allows them to reconsider their local sense of place. New trends will be revealed through engagement with the public, reflecting changes in their sense of place.

At minimum, there is likely to be more community interest in improving active transport options. Many people have been reminded of the pleasures of walking and cycling. Other new priorities may be more green space and better social infrastructure.




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On the other hand, enthusiasm for public transport might fall and car ownership rates could rise.

Plenty of parking spaces at this suburban train station. Will we be comfortable taking public transport after lockdowns end?
Tony Matthews

The road ahead

The transformative impacts of this pandemic prompt fundamental questions. Do people have the same enthusiasm for city living? Is it time for new urban realities? What would new realities look like? How would they be achieved?

These are extraordinary times that call for extraordinary responses. It is not a time for planners and policymakers to plan for people; it is a time to plan with people.

Many innovations in urban planning are founded in efforts to improve human health. COVID-19 will undoubtedly prompt a new round of thinking about how cities can be re-imagined. It will be a big adjustment for urban planning, which has traditionally relied on the relative predictability of how people use space.

People’s perception and attachment to places is changing, perhaps forever. Decisions on where to go from here will be better made if planners understand how people are redefining their sense of place in this time of profound upheaval.




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The Conversation


Tony Matthews, Senior Lecturer in Urban and Environmental Planning, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why coronavirus must not stop Australia creating denser cities



Abdul Razak Latif/Shutterstock

Max Holleran, University of Melbourne

Stay-at-home orders have meant many people are happy to live in dispersed suburbs with free-standing, single-family homes. Quarantine feels less daunting with a backyard, plenty of storage space to stockpile supplies, and a big living room for morning stretches. Before the crisis, though, Australia was slowly moving toward urban density.

More apartments with communal amenities, rather than privatised space, were being built, creating less dependence on driving. It is easy to think these urbanites are now glumly looking out their windows towards the more spacious suburbs, wishing they had made different choices. Yet, despite the impacts of restrictions, Australia’s future is in urban density and not the suburban sprawl of the past.




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The benefits of density done well

Before the world changed and Australians were ushered inside en masse, the country was making great strides toward creating more compact, walkable cities. Denser neighbourhoods provided multiple benefits:

  • better access to transport alternatives to cars

  • the creation of vibrant commercial districts

  • increased ability to house more people during affordability and homelessness crises.




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Nationally, we were building almost as many apartment units as single family homes. In cities like Melbourne and Sydney, apartment construction even surpassed stand-alone houses despite lax quality regulations and design and construction flaws.

Density was achieved not just through towers for Asian investors in CBDs, but more subtle alterations such as townhouses and small blocks of flats. Residents moving into these neighbourhoods affirmed a sense of environmental consciousness, based on driving less, but also the belief in tight-knit communities with small businesses, parks and thriving street life.

Townhouses, like these in Hobart, increase urban density more unobtrusively than high-rise apartment blocks.
David Lade/Shutterstock



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Beware the siren call of suburbia

With the onset of COVID-19, it seems Australia’s new-found love of city living might be over, reverting to the suburban norm. The suburbs always offered a sense of safety, now more than ever.

Yet much of this is illusory. People still have to go shopping and, in many cases, to work, where they could be exposed to the virus. People have just as much control over their physical space in an apartment as in a house. (The exception is the lifts, but distancing measures and gloves can easily reduce risk.)

Australians may be tempted to re-embrace suburbia out of nostalgia for pre-virus safety, but they should remember what brought them to cities in the first place. As the architect Robin Boyd bemoaned way back in his 1960 critique of suburbanisation, The Australian Ugliness:

… the suburbs’ stealthy crawl like dry rot eating into the forest edge.

With 60 years of government policy propping up sprawl through freeway construction and tax breaks like negative gearing, it continues to be its own kind of infection scarring the landscape.




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Don’t blame public health failures on density

Despite re-animated fears of living closer together, many countries that have successfully contained the coronavirus have some of the most densely populated cities in the world. These cities include Seoul, Hong Kong and Taipei. They have done this not by separating people but by increasing testing and contact tracing.




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What is needed during a pandemic is not panic but effective public health. Prosperous, well-managed city governments are often best placed to offer these services to the community.

Negative examples like the United States, where the Trump administration has devolved responsibilities to states and cities, provide even more proof of why cities have to be at the forefront of public health campaigns, whether or not they choose that role voluntarily. The same could be said of Australia, where state governments in Victoria and New South Wales took the lead on restricting gatherings as the national government dithered.

Now, more than ever, we are appreciating urban life from afar: making lists of our favourite restaurants, changing our Zoom background during “virtual happy hour” to the interior of our local pub, and yearning for social connections that have migrated online.

We should listen to our desires and use this moment to double down on urban density when the crisis subsides, by funding mass transit and providing incentives to construct apartments rather than free-standing suburban homes.

Low-density living is less sustainable, less affordable and less fun. We should all remember that, despite currently having to keep our distance from one another.




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The Conversation


Max Holleran, Lecturer in Sociology, University of Melbourne, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

So coronavirus will change cities – will that include slums?



Aditya Kabir/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

David Sanderson, UNSW

Many commentators have speculated on how the coronavirus pandemic will alter cities and the ways they are planned and used. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has tweeted: “There is a density level in NYC that is destructive […] NYC must develop an immediate plan to reduce density.”

Articles about disease and cities have reported on how past pandemics led to civic improvements, such as public health pioneer John Snow’s use of cholera maps, an early form of health-data gathering, to combat cholera in 19th-century London.

But these stories relate to cities in richer countries, which have enough funding and the political will to make changes. It’s hard to see how the COVID-19 pandemic will lead to any better outcomes for the close to a billion or so people who live in fast-growing, low-income, informal settlements, or slums, that cram cities throughout Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Pacific. These settlements are some of the densest and most poorly serviced places on Earth.




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Coronavirus an ‘existential threat’ to Africa and her crowded slums


Density, the good and the bad

Despite Cuomo’s statement, density for cities is good on the whole. The world’s population is rocketing, with most of this growth happening in cities. Where else would we put all these people?

Density is good for innovation, socialising, economies of scale, fuel efficiency and economic growth. Density, though, is good only when managed and planned. New York’s governor may have a point if he was talking about de-densifying slums in Dhaka, Cali or Freetown. Slum density can be grim.

In these dense settlements, heat stifles, ventilation is rare, light is sparse and families share one room and basic services (thereby worsening the spread of respiratory disease). Density that prevents fire trucks reaching fires, or that lacks adequate drainage, sanitation or piped water supply, is not good.

Health services in cities across the world have ramped up in anticipation of the inundation of coronavirus patients. This has been based on modelling of health data across respective populations, much as Snow did for London. Combined with lockdown and other social distancing measures, there is evidence this has so far mostly worked well (though not a cause for relaxing).

Health risks in slums, however, have been awful for decades. We have little data on the health of slum dwellers, and health care is often out of reach for those who are sick. The paltry numbers of ventilators in African countries attest to the shortage of equipment and support – what chance if you’re poor?




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Disasters come and go for slum dwellers

Will coronavirus have a lasting impact on urban planning and how we use cities? Perhaps.

Businesses might be asking why they spend so much on office space when employees have shown they can work from home. Many hitherto-polluted cities have enjoyed much cleaner air during lockdowns. Several European cities are considering lasting zoning regulations to reserve streets for cyclists.




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But again, for people living in slums, it may well be business as usual. The coronavirus will be just one more tragedy for many who live in slums.

Take the Ebola outbreak of 2014-16, which killed over 11,000 people across Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Dense, poorly serviced slums with people living cheek by jowl were particular hotspots. Ebola had devastating impacts on economies, lives and health-care systems.

Yet evidence of post-Ebola improvements in urban planning are hard to find. When three-quarters of a country’s urban population, such as Sierra Leone’s, live in slums and confront other pressing matters of poverty and recent conflict, de-densifying and replanning slums equates to nirvana, at least in the short term.

Residents of Freetown in Sierra Leone have no reason to believe this pandemic will lead to any more improvements than previous disasters did.
Slum Dwellers International/Flickr, CC BY



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Skin in the game

As the coronavirus pandemic has shown, self-preservation is a great incentive to action. Lockdown requires individuals to consent for it to work.

Post-disease urban improvements also correlate to self-interest. London’s infamous “Great Stink” of 1858 of untreated sewage floating in the Thames led to the world’s largest sewer system. But it only happened once the smell reached the House of Commons. Something had to be done!

Unlike the Great Stink, which didn’t waft further than the capital, the coronavirus is a global concern. The world has shown it can mobilise resources as never before to tackle a threat.

Now is the time to add slum improvements to our post-pandemic agenda. The need is great – the number of people living in slums may double to 2 billion by 2050. Given the world community’s demonstrated indifference to such places, even the confronting experience of COVID-19 might not be enough to lead to improvements.The Conversation

David Sanderson, Professor and Inaugural Judith Neilson Chair in Architecture, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Cities will endure, but urban design must adapt to coronavirus risks and fears



Public spaces must now meet our need to be ‘together but apart’.
Silvia Tavares, Author provided

Silvia Tavares, University of the Sunshine Coast and Nicholas Stevens, University of the Sunshine Coast

The long-term impacts of coronavirus on our cities are difficult to predict, but one thing is certain: cities won’t die. Diseases have been hugely influential in shaping our cities, history shows. Cities represent continuity regardless of crises – they endure, adapt and grow.




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Once we can have our old lives back we will likely return to familiar routines and our memories of lockdown and isolation will start to fade. While our lack of memory is arguably a resiliency resource, urban designers and planners have a long-term role in ensuring urban life is healthy. To fight infectious diseases, cities need well-ventilated urban spaces with good access to sunlight.

The design of these spaces, and public open spaces in particular, promotes different levels of sociability. Some spaces congregate community and are highly social. Others may act as urban retreats where people seek peace with their coffee and book.

How urban spaces perform during disease outbreaks now also demands our close attention.

What is urbanity and why does it matter?

Urban spaces are where communities come together. Urban planners and designers strive to generate a sense of belonging that makes people choose certain areas of a city or even a city itself. Urbanity refers to the public life that happens as a result of the exchanges and communication each space enables.

The combination of diversity and density achieve urbanity – it’s a product of diverse social opportunities in close proximity. This is why densifying cities has been a goal for achieving healthy, social and prosperous cities.

However, the risks of COVID-19 transmission have strengthened anti-density discourses. It is worth remembering, then, that ways of fighting disease, such as sanitation, were only possible because of the financial savings and infrastructure efficiencies enabled by denser cities. Density done right is safe. And it permits the human interactions and connections we need – and which we are now missing.

Once COVID-19 is less of a threat we will crave the normality of going back to our old lifestyles as much as possible. The role of urban planners and designers is then to create a background for public life to happen in social and healthy ways.

Learning from other disasters

Following the 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, where the CBD lost some 800 buildings, the community took a very different view of urban spaces. Crowded areas and tall buildings were a source of fear. The common attitude was to avoid density – what if another earthquake hit?




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Urban designers and decision-makers learned that buildings and public spaces had to respond differently. Safe pop-up areas started to emerge. This new normal made some old quiet cafés and public open spaces resilient, while other pop-ups become popular retreat areas. These urban retreat areas were away from streets and tall buildings, and so offered a way of “being there” and being safe.

A park-like retreat space on South Colombo Street, Christchurch.
Silvia Tavares, Author provided

Both the Christchurch earthquake and coronavirus have made people cautious about their safety in the city – because of their proximity to surrounding buildings and to other users of the space, respectively. Christchurch teaches us a lesson about “being together but apart”: cities are not made only of social spaces, and not all residents want the same thing.

People need choice in their use of urban spaces to feel secure and be safe. While larger social spaces are vibrant, support public transport and local economies, urban retreat spaces apply the idea of prospect and refuge: they meet our psychological needs to observe and be part of the public space (prospect) while feeling safe and removed from the scene (refuge).

Post-quake Christchurch showed how the social character and dynamics of urban spaces influenced the people these spaces attracted and how they behaved there.




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Designing spaces with microclimates in mind

Another factor to consider is the influence of urban microclimates on the use and prosperity of public spaces.

The main activity of large urban social spaces is based upon the presence of people, social interaction and cultural exchange. The use and dynamics of these spaces are more predictable and consistent than for urban retreat spaces. Being close to transport or commercial uses often means weather conditions have less impact on social activity and interaction.

Shops along the street add to the local urbanity of Cashel Mall, Christchurch.
Silvia Tavares, Author provided

When looking for peaceful experiences and personal space, however, people tend to choose urban retreat spaces. Here they have less tolerance of adverse conditions. The place itself is the attraction, so the microclimate and personal comfort are more significant factors in its use.

Understanding, harnessing and managing microclimate, sunlight and ventilation is a clear and known approach to fighting disease and to establishing safe and resilient urban spaces. Offering people choice in the ways they interact with their urban environments, while long considered important, is now essential.




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Broad engagement is essential to get it right

Redesigning our urban spaces to reassure users of their safety and provide community choice is not a straightforward process. Designs for the different forms and locations of urban retreat spaces must acknowledge community diversity and optimise microclimate.

While right now we might just want to hold on to all the good things we had pre-coronavirus, the nuances generated by the work of urban planners and designers are likely to make our lives safer. However, our responses cannot simply be reactive interventions such as warning signs, fencing, wider pathways and the like. Such approaches ultimately have implications for equity and quality of life.

We have long had a reactive, piecemeal approach to urban design and development. The current disaster presents an opportunity to establish safe, resilient and healthy urban spaces. It requires meaningful engagement across communities, designers and decision-makers now, before collective amnesia about COVID-19 sets in and we go back to business as usual.The Conversation

Silvia Tavares, Lecturer and Researcher, Urban Design and Town Planning, University of the Sunshine Coast and Nicholas Stevens, Senior Lecturer and Researcher, Land Use Planning & Urban Design, University of the Sunshine Coast

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

We can’t let coronavirus kill our cities. Here’s how we can save urban life



Twitter/@br19800

Jonathan Daly, RMIT University; Kim Dovey, University of Melbourne, and Quentin Stevens, RMIT University

The COVID-19 pandemic restrictions have reminded us of the vital role public space plays in supporting our physical and mental well-being. We need to move, to feel sunlight and fresh air, and to see, talk and even sing to other people.

Lockdowns and “social distancing” have limited our participation in public life and public space. As a result, cities around the world are reporting declines in health and well-being. We are seeing increases in depression, domestic violence, relationship breakdowns and divorces.




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What about the well-being of our cities? Avoiding walking and public transport in favour of cars could kill cities.

The trajectory of the pandemic suggests physical distancing could remain in place for some time. The subtle “step and slide” that people ordinarily use to negotiate their way through crowded urban spaces has given way to the very blunt act of “stop and cross”, as people try to avoid one another on footpaths that are too narrow.

We need to act swiftly to retrofit our public spaces so they are both safe and support social activity. Our goal must be to avoid a long-term legacy where people fear cities and other people. This is where approaches known as temporary and tactical urbanism come in as a way to quickly reconfigure public spaces to create places that are both safe and social.

As COVID-19’s impacts on public life become more evident, so has the abundance of street space left vacant by the substantial drop in vehicle traffic. Recognising this opportunity, cities around the world have begun repurposing street spaces for people.

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Brunswick Street, Melbourne, as it is now and with proposed added space for walking and riding bikes (click on and drag the slider to compare images). Original image: David Hannah. Photoshopped image: Gianfranco Valverde/City of Melbourne. Author provided.

A global public space revolution?

Leading urban theorists, such as Jane Jacobs and Richard Sennett, have long argued that social interaction is the lifeblood of cities. The COVID-19 pandemic can be seen as an attack on urbanity itself.




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But social/physical distancing should not preclude social interaction. Major cities around the world are responding by reclaiming street spaces for people to safely walk and cycle. They are acting quickly, because the need to increase public space for people is more urgent than ever.

How can this be done? After all, urban design proposals usually take months or years to realise. Tactical urbanism approaches overcome this by drawing on a palette of low-cost, widely available and flexible materials, objects and structures to quickly create new forms of public space.

In London, Berlin, Bogota, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Vancouver, Mexico City and Milan, paint and traffic cones are being used to create bike lanes. In Dublin, parking spaces and loading bays are being reclaimed in the city centre to provide more space for pedestrians. At a national level, New Zealand has created a tactical urbanism fund for emergency bike lanes and footpath widening.

So what’s happening in Australia? Not much at present. Yet we face the same problems, prompting calls for urgent action to reclaim public space for walking and cycling.




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Despite this, there has been little examination of locally specific design and implementation approaches that can rapidly deliver the urban spaces people need right now.

Making it happen

Temporary and tactical urbanism isn’t new to Australia. We’ve been doing it since the 1980s when Melbourne’s Swanston Street was transformed into a green oasis overnight. This helped to reimagine the city centre as a place designed for people, which shaped its long-term social and economic regeneration.

The Greening of Swanston Street in 1985.
Victorian Ministry of Planning



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This, and other more recent projects, have proven temporary and tactical urbanism adds value beyond physical activity and social interaction. Successful schemes can increase the vitality of streets and neighbourhoods, engage local communities and enhance a local sense of place.

Social enterprises and community groups are well placed to deliver such projects, because of their enthusiasm, agility and local networks. Governments also have a crucial role in enabling other actors and maximising public benefits. Every weekday between midday and 2pm, the City of Melbourne temporarily closes Little Collins Street between Swanston and Elizabeth streets with a removable bollard, giving over the street to pedestrians – it’s that easy!

Little Collins Street already becomes a place for pedestrians at lunchtime.
City of Melbourne. Author provided., Author provided

Our cities’ urban spaces are full of such potential for greater flexibility, experimentation and innovation. For example, on-street parking can easily be converted into spaces for socialising and outdoor dining. A vacant space can become an outdoor cinema.

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Elizabeth Street, Melbourne, as it is now and with added space for walking and riding bikes. Original image: Google Street View. Photoshopped image: Audrey Lopez. Author provided.

Temporary or permanent?

The COVID-19 pandemic and its associated restrictions have created an epic social experiment on a global scale. We argue that urbanity itself is at stake. What will cities be without the social interactions that enable us to exchange ideas, opinions, values and knowledge?

Can we afford to go back to the cities designed for cars that we have spent decades reshaping for people? If we don’t act now, the social life of cities that sustains our economy, creativity and culture is at risk.

We need to counter the social impacts of COVID-19 by experimenting at the micro scale of public space. Temporary and tactical urbanism offers simple, low-cost and agile solutions. We should act quickly to make streets safe and sociable during this crisis. The long-term health of people and cities depends on it.The Conversation

Jonathan Daly, Researcher, School of Architecture and Urban Design, RMIT University; Kim Dovey, Professor of Architecture and Urban Design, University of Melbourne, and Quentin Stevens, Associate Professor, School of Architecture and Urban Design, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

If more of us work from home after coronavirus we’ll need to rethink city planning



Halfpoint/Shutterstock

John L Hopkins, Swinburne University of Technology

We have seen an unprecedented rise in the number of people working from home as directed by governments and employers around the world to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

If, as some expect, people are likely to work from home more often after the pandemic, what will this mean for infrastructure planning? Will cities still need all the multibillion-dollar road, public transport, telecommunications and energy projects, including some already in the pipeline?




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World’s largest work-from-home experiment

Remote working was steadily on the rise well before COVID-19. But the pandemic suddenly escalated the trend into the “world’s largest work-from-home experiment”. Many people who have had to embrace remote working during the pandemic might not want to return to the office every day once restrictions are lifted.

They might have found some work tasks are actually easier to do at home. Or they (and their employers) might have discovered things that weren’t thought possible to do from home are possible. They might then question why they had to go into the workplace so often in the first place.

But what impact will this have on our cities? After all, many aspects of our cities were designed with commuting, not working from home, in mind.




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Stress test for NBN and energy networks

From a telecommunications perspective, the huge increase in people working from home challenges the ways in which our existing networks were designed.

Data from Aussie Broadband show evening peak broadband use has increased 25% during the shutdown. Additional daytime increases are expected due to home schooling with term 2 starting.

Research by the then federal Department of Communications in 2018 estimated the average Australian household would need a maximum download speed of 49Mbps during peak-use times by 2026. If more people work from home after COVID-19, the size and times of peak use might need to be recalculated.

Another factor not modelled by the government research was the potential impact of an increase in uploads. This is a typical requirement for people working from home, as they now send large files via their suburban home networks, rather than their office networks in the city.




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Recent research by Octopus Energy in the UK has found domestic energy use patterns have also changed since COVID-19. With more people working from home, domestic energy use in the middle of the day is noticeably higher. Some 30% of customers use an average of 1.5kWh more electricity between 9am and 5pm.

Conversely, data from the US show electricity use in city centres and industrial areas has declined over the same period.

Less commuting means less congestion

Closer to home, new data from HERE Technologies illustrate just how much traffic congestion has eased.

Thursday afternoons from 5-5.15pm are normally the worst time of the week for traffic congestion in Melbourne. Last week the city’s roads recorded the sort of free-flowing traffic usually seen at 9.30am on a Sunday. Just 1.8% of Melbourne’s major roads were congested, a fraction of the usual 19.8% at that time.

All of Australia’s major cities are experiencing similar reductions. Transurban has reported traffic is down 43% on the Melbourne airport toll road, 29% on its Sydney roads and 27% in Queensland.

Passengers are also staying away from public transport in droves. For example, South Australian government statistics for Adelaide show passenger numbers have slumped by 69% for buses, by 74% for trains and by 77% for trams, compared with this time last year.




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What does this mean for infrastructure planning?

With these trends in mind, future investment in roads, public transport, energy and telecommunications will need to consider the likelihood of more people working from home.

Prior to COVID-19, Melbourne research found 64% of city workers regularly worked from home, but usually only one day a week, even though 50% of their work could be done anywhere. While the changes we are now seeing are a result of extreme circumstances, it is not inconceivable that, on average, everybody could continue to work from home one extra day per week after the pandemic. Even this would have significant implications for long-term urban planning.

The most recent Australian Census data show 9.2 million people typically commute to work each day. If people worked from home an average of one extra day per week, this would take 1.8 million commuters off the roads and public transport each day.

Many road and public transport projects will be based on forecasts of continuing increases in commuter numbers. If, instead, people work from home more often, this could call into question the need for those projects.

Areas outside city centres would also require more attention, as working from home creates a need for more evenly distributed networks of services for the likes of energy and telecommunications. Interestingly, such a trend could support long-term decentralisation plans, like those outlined in Melbourne’s Metropolitan Planning Strategy. And if such change encourages more people to live away from the big cities, it also could help to make housing more affordable.




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The Conversation


John L Hopkins, Innovation Fellow, Swinburne University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.